Ly Nguyen is currently a Software Engineer at SendGrid in the Bay area. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Ly set out to venture into the Technology field and the rapidly expanding Technology field in Northern California. Her journey in Tech wasn’t always the smoothest yet definite factor in her growth as an engineer. Read below as Ly shares her career journey of landing jobs, creativity blocks, and arduous interviews.
After having a rough start to the year, I left my job in August 2017 to travel the world-ish. I had an enjoyable eight months off but decided to kickstart my job search in January, four months into my sabbatical. My plan was to test the waters and reply to recruiter inquiries from the past six months. It got out of hand pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was doing this thing full time.
The last time I job searched, I cited 200+ hours of studying and 12 hours of interviews. This time around was quite different. Here’s what went down over the course of three months:
- ~24 hours of or ~50 recruiter screenings
- ~45 hours of technical phone screens
- ~100 hours of onsite interviews with 19 companies
- Miscellaneous calls such as followups and compensation discussions
- Some chump change hours of studying (studying from three years ago was still fresh in my mind)
- 11 job offers
This experience was a rollercoaster — exhilarating and fulfilling all at once. In this post, I talk about my job search process and lessons learned as a software engineer. But, there are lots of takeaways that I think can be applied by those even in other industries.
Before we start, there are a couple of caveats I want you to be aware of:
- I am not a career development expert — this is all personal experience so take this all with a grain of salt.
- Some of this also might either seem like common sense, or contradictory to traditional advice, depending on your own job search experience.
- I’m in an industry that is an employee’s market, so some of the advice below might not apply if you are in an employer’s market.
- Below are the nuggets of wisdom I gained from this experience and hope to impart onto you!
Job searching is a full-time job…
…as you can see above. Taking time off to dedicate myself to it worked greatly to my advantage. If I didn’t have at least six months of financial runway, I probably wouldn’t have quit my job (I’ve always put a lot of my paycheck into savings and don’t think I live a super extravagant life). Consider doing this with respect to your own situation! Everyone’s circumstance is different, so if you were to consider this option, you would think about how much financial runway makes you comfortable, your financial responsibilities, and heuristics on how quickly and often you might be able to secure an offer (ex: how often recruiters and hiring managers reach out to you, how long it took you to get an offer last time vs. how much effort and time you put in, and the amount of work experience you’ve gained since then). Line up interviews if you can. This might not be possible in certain industries depending on whether they’re hiring rapidly.
You’ll need them references.
I hadn’t needed them for years and several jobs, so assumed it was obsolete — at least in tech. I had a feeling I might be wrong. During my job search, I learned that I was very wrong. Luckily, I was somewhat prepared, because the majority of my offers had requested 2–3 references. My point is, whether you’re taking a break or going straight into the job search, prepare your references. Have at least a couple of peer references and one manager reference from your current job. Have even more at hand if you’re planning to secure a lot of offers so you don’t overwhelm any one reference. In my experience, protecting my references’ time was important. If an offer didn’t measure up to expectation, I did not give them references until they came back with a better offer.
Remember, work your ass off in your last quarter, be pleasant, and leave a lasting positive impression. Come up with a transition plan and leave them in a good place.
Failing doesn’t get drastically easier, but it does a little bit.
Success entails a lot of failures along the way, and there’s no better way to really learn this lesson other than to deal with rejection on a daily basis. Failure helped me build character.
The one other thing I truly internalized through this process was that failure is very important data gathering. After a rejection, ask them for feedback, write it down, and improve in that area. Some employers will hesitate to give feedback, so in those cases you’ll have to make an educated guess and debrief your own interview. Embrace failure. Take advantage of it.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
‘Cause let’s be real, failing hurts more when you do. Too often people spend too long absorbing the details and requirements of a job opening, evaluating whether they’re qualified, interview, and then wait, wait, and wait on that one job. People also spend too long writing essay answers on applications.
First, don’t hold yourself back. If you see a position you like, apply for it. There are a lot of nuances in job postings so the recruiter and hiring manager are in best position to decide to interview you or not. They protect their time, so if you don’t seem to meet their requirements, they won’t interview you. You have nothing to lose. Apply to multiple employers.
Second, it takes moments for recruiters and hiring managers to form an impression on your resume. You might argue that longer, detailed answers might show that you are truly interested. On the flip side, recruiters have tons of resumes and applications to go through, so they have to use their time wisely. If it’s taking the employer too long to get a pulse on you, they’ll stop reading. Show and tell what matters most to them, and do it quickly and concisely.
Rock your interviews.
This one is a no-duh. Without being prepared for interviews, the rest of this article is moot. In general, you should be able to answer technical (with regard to your industry) and behavioral questions, and show a sense of communication and ability to collaborate. I can write a separate post on how I prepared for technical interviews, but it would be out of scope for today’s post.
P.S. I did publish a piece on preparing for software engineering interviews for new grads here.
You can do all the right things and still get rejected.
The company might want more of a jack-of-all-trades, or they want more of a specialist. You may have done really well compared to your other interviews, but the candidate they ended up hiring did just a little better than you did. They might want someone a little more senior who can lead, or someone a little more junior who can quickly produce. Their budget and headcount have changed. They want someone who knows a very specific tool. Their interviewer is inexperienced and actually screwed up your interview. You had a really off day (this happens…it’s okay!). You catch my drift? Many times the outcome is out of your control. Being aware of this helps to deal with rejection. But also…
You create your own luck.
Was I aiming for 11 offers? No. Was it overkill? Absolutely, but I would rather that. It’s okay to offer-stack! Having multiple offers gives you options. Options are good and allow you to be picky, because no one offer will be perfect. Really, it’s about finding what’s best for you. So, if you want three offers for comparison and it takes 50 applications for one offer to come through, create your own luck and apply to more companies. Further, open up to different but related positions. You can either take a few months to prep before diving in, or take advantage of earlier failed interviews as practice and refine your skills as you go.
One thing to be careful about is revealing that you have too many or too little offers. When you reveal that you have zero other offers, you have little negotiating power. When you reveal that you have four (or whatever number that sounds ridiculous — it’s subjective), you may come off as cocky, wasting their time, etc. But to be honest, companies interview multiple candidates, do they not? It would be fair for them to expect that any good candidate is interviewing with multiple companies and have received or will receive other offers. Don’t feel guilty for revealing that you are aggressively looking.
To that end, brush up your LinkedIn (remember: think SEO. What would a recruiter search for?), connect with those in your industry, keep your connections warm, attend conferences, attend meetups, etc. In fact, you should always be doing these things, regardless of whether you are looking.
Be open minded to opportunities that initially don’t seem attractive to you.
There were a select few companies that I had always admired and was sure that I’d work for in a heartbeat. The pleasant surprise is, after the interviews, my impressions of them were crushed. Instead, companies that I’d never heard of became my top choices. So, don’t be picky in the beginning stages. Give yourself an opportunity to learn about them.
This is as much about you interviewing them as them interviewing you.
The best way to handle an interview is to treat it as a two-way conversation and not an interrogation.
Be curious so that you can be picky! Gather data that might help you form a decision down the road. Ask them about engineering standards, tech stack, culture, pain points, management style, product roadmap, what you’ll do in the first month, what you’ll do in the first two months, company mission, things they like about the company, things they don’t like about the company, etc.
Come with a learning mindset. This will show them that you are interested and engaged, and alone it can set you apart from many other candidates. The best way to prepare is to arm yourself with a list of questions that you can pull from. Have a balance between questions that’ll give you insights on what your experience at the company might be like, and also some technical questions that’ll show that you are thoughtful and will be a valuable asset to the team. It helps to be systematic about what questions to ask who.
Keep notes of everything.
Keep a spreadsheet and write down notes of everything, for obvious reasons. This includes things like the product, the role, the answers to your questions, verbal and written aspects of the offer, the questions they asked and your answers to them, your interaction with the hiring manager and potential teammates. I even took notes of signals that mattered to me like: Did conversations feel like a two way street? Did the interviewer look at parts of my body he shouldn’t be looking at? Was the interviewer working on answering emails during our session?
I had several sheets:
- one that kept track of application status (recruiter interview, phone interview, onsite, rejected/offered) and notes gathered from interviews
- one with offer details (columns for base salary, bonus, equity, 401k, health/dental/vision, other perks, total liquid compensation year 1/2/3/4, other notes)
- one with a study checklist
- one with a list of questions interviewers might ask me
- one with a list of questions I want to ask them
- Remember to save your written offers for your reference!
Timing is everythang.
For offers, big employers tend to move slower (2–6 weeks), small employers tend to move faster (the day after-2 weeks). Schedule your big employer interviews earlier and small employer ones later so that your offers come out approximately the same time. Typically the expected timeline for a candidate to sign is 1–2 weeks after an offer is extended, but exploding offers of a couple of days do happen, and likewise some employers don’t have a strict deadline in mind.
For slow moving companies, be sure to let them know your timeline. “I want to make a decision by x date.” Usually they’ll try to work with you.
At some point in your job search, you may also receive an exploding offer and be pressured into signing quickly. They may suggest that the team wants someone that is serious about joining. That’s because they’ve worked hard to secure a good candidate, and don’t want you to entertain other opportunities. If you hesitate that this is the best decision, make clear to them that you really think it would be more fair to both parties if you had the chance to consider all options and make an informed decision. Tell them you will plan to make a decision by x date. This way, you are keeping an open line of communication with them. They might not want to miss an opportunity to hire you and end up working with your timeline. At worst case, they say no, and the ball is back in your court. It never hurts to ask.
Prioritize your health.
You have to be healthy in order to interview well. I cannot stress the following enough!
Get enough sleep. Eat well. Have just a little caffeine in the morning if needed, but not so much so that you get jittery. Drink lots of water throughout your interview day so you can stay sharp! Take bathroom breaks in between interview sessions — this can help you reset if you have a long interview day.
If they want you, they really want you.
Hiring is hard. Typically only 0.2%–10% of all people who get to the first phone interview stage actually receive and accept an offer. Companies can spend several thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars (~20% of salary) just to hire a single position. Costs incur from position advertisement, recruiters, agency fees, training, employee time spent on interview loops, onboarding, etc. In my experience, smaller companies tended to be pickier than bigger companies because they have limited resources. In general, a lot of companies would rather have false negatives than false positives, because false positives (bad hires) end up costing the company a lot. So, if they’re extending an offer, it means you’re special. Even if they extend an offer but don’t actually want you that bad, it means you’re dispensable, and you don’t want to be dispensable.
All this leads me to say…
With the differential, you can buy a home, invest your money, take care of your parents, donate it to a charity you care about, travel, pamper yourself…the possibilities are endless. Let me make clear that picking a job is not all about money, but you want to maximize your compensation with respect to wherever you end up. While you’re not negotiating, others are. This is an important bit to chew on.
Take for example, my case. I ended up loving the smaller, lesser known companies, but sometimes the initial offer was not high enough. Negotiating allowed me to bring them to parity with the bigger guys which made those offers very well-rounded.
You definitely have more leverage if you have other offers, but regardless of that and knowing how hard it is to hire, you should negotiate! Companies rarely rescind offers out of backlash, unless you are doing something wrong. Here are some basic rules to follow:
- Don’t be a jerk. If there is one reason an employer would rescind an offer, it would be related to this.
- Negotiate only if you actually want to work for them, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time.
- Know what your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is. This is what you would do if you walk away from an offer. For example: take up another offer, keep looking, work for yourself, go back to school, or travel the world. Having confidence that you have other options that’ll make you just as happy or happier is crucial in negotiation. Knowing your BATNA gives you leverage.
- Don’t be the first to reveal your expectations.
- Don’t reveal your other offer details/previous compensation (did you know asking for salary history is illegal in some states?) until later, and even then, only if it helps with negotiation. Remember, this is YOUR personal information. Nobody else is entitled to it.
- Don’t be the first to reveal salary expectations.
- I know I already said this, but just don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.
What is the motivation when they ask about your expectations? Most employers rely on industry data, or have gathered their own data, to determine salary ranges they want to pay you. After all the time they’ve spent interviewing you, they would have already leveled you and determined your salary range, so there is no reason to ask for your opinion other than to lowball. If you say something low, they might just give you what you want, and you’ll end up missing out (did I mention, workers get the highest raises when they change employers, so this is your chance to bargain — large raises are rare with the same employer). If you say something ridiculously high, they’ll know you’re just shooting in the dark. It’ll be a guess for you, because you don’t know what they intend to pay you. A couple of ways to dodge this question is to tell them:
- “I don’t want to project my salary expectations on you, since every employer is different.”
- “I want to evaluate the offer holistically (compensation, opportunity, growth, culture), so I don’t have any initial expectations.”
- “I’m just not comfortable throwing out the first number, because I don’t think that’ll be beneficial to me.”
- “Let me ask you instead. What is the salary range for people you’ve hired into my level this year?” (I absolutely love this one.)
- Can you think of any others? Usually, saying no three times will get them off your back. They might call and pretend this conversation never happened, in which case you’ll have to reiterate yourself.
So, get them to say it first and work from there. Have an expectation in mind and do your research (e.g.: you want to earn just as much or more than your last job by x amount, you know the market rate for your level of experience & skillset is x based on Glassdoor, Blind, PayScale, etc.). They might surprise you with a really nice offer.
But if they throw out some low ball numbers, they might be testing the waters with you. If you’re short on time, start your negotiation immediately. Cite details of your other offer. Or, name something higher than your target, as the two sides will tend to meet in the middle. Be sure to justify why you want what you’re asking for.
If you can afford some time or haven’t received a better offer elsewhere, this might be one conversation to have:
You: *contemplate* “Okay. Is this what your fair offer is?”
Them: “Yeah, sure.”
You: “Okay.” *contemplate* “If that’s what you think a fair offer is, let’s move forward with a written offer”
Them: “Does this sound fair to you? Can you verbally accept the offer?”
You: “It might be a little low, but like I said, if that is your fair offer, let’s move forward and I’ll consider my options.”
They may press a little more, you might reiterate a little more. Then, silence. Silence is golden. They may come back with a written offer with those details, or they may call you back with another offer. In the former scenario, you might keep sitting on it, and they’ll get anxious and check back with you and give you the opportunity to negotiate, or you can jump the gun and say that you’ve thought through your expectations.
Through this whole process, the most important thing to keep in mind is to be as pleasant as possible.
There are a plethora of negotiating resources you can refer to out there. Read up, and grab a friend to practice with!
BTW, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss is a great book about negotiation. There’s just a small section on salary negotiation itself, but a great read regardless.
Recruiters each have different styles you should watch out for.
The people I typically negotiated with were recruiters. Sometimes there’s a different closing recruiter, sometimes it’s the same primary recruiter doing the closing. Whoever is tasked with the job is the best person available to negotiate — they are armed with data and experienced negotiators, and can run circles around you.
In my experience, the closing recruiters tended to have alpha personalities — more brute force, pushy, a little intimidating. I learned to interact with these well, as I didn’t feel bad standing up for myself.
The trickier styles are the ones that tend more soft spoken and thus more persuasive. These ones tended to speak in my language, saying things like, “I have nothing to work with, so if you don’t have an idea in mind, can’t give me details of your other offer, can’t give me details of your current/previous compensation, they”, whoever approves compensation, “will lowball you. I have no data, I have no power.” These ones I slipped on and surely got lowballed.
Some want to hire you for as little as possible. Some just want to close you as quickly as possible. Of course some want mutual benefit for you and the employer. It’s hard to tell, so you just have to be prepared for each possibility.
Negotiate the miscellaneous things.
The closer you and the employer are to closing the deal, the better the opportunity to start asking about other things. That goes for PTO, ability to work remote, relocation expenses, rent, etc. Some employers have a no-negotiation policy on these, but it never hurts to try.
Evaluate your offer(s) holistically.
You spend at least 1/3 of your life at work. It’s incredibly difficult to compartmentalize. If you are unhappy at work, it seeps into your personal life, which is why I recommend that you not be blindly consumed with just one aspect of an offer.
There are many things to consider: impact, product, interesting work, seniority, culture, stability, personal growth, benefits, perks, company growth, compensation, work-life balance, company ethics, company brand recognition, commute, size of the company, PTO, teammates, manager…the list goes on. Some might weigh more than others.
Your needs and goals will change through different phases of your life, so the question to ask yourself is, what is the best holistic choice for you right now? For example, last time, I wanted career growth and brand recognition. This time, I needed the ability to make an impact, a collaborative environment, and core company values that aligned with my own. Smaller companies seemed to check off those boxes for me.
Go down the list, and rate your first, second, third choice, just as you did when you picked your college. :)
Making decisions is hard.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll lose a lot of sleep from indecisiveness. Having kept notes and done your own ratings, if the choice still isn’t obvious, talk to your close ones. That helped bring me a lot of clarity.
Having choices is hard but always ideal in life, and making one is a part of adulthood.
Read your damn contract.
Before you turn any offers down, ask for the contract you plan to sign with in writing. In case the written offer for the employer you plan to sign with doesn’t look right, you still have your other options available. Obviously, make sure that the numbers you negotiated for are in writing, but most people have a habit of stopping there. Offers can have all sorts of weird terms in there that will screw you. Recruiters will tell you it has all the standard terms, but that can be far from the truth.
I have personally accepted an offer only to realize that there was a term in the offer that I could not agree with. I reneged. Reneging is not an ideal situation to be in.
FORCED ARBITRATION IS NOT OKAY!
The term that pushed me to renege? Arbitration — a clause that essentially prevents you from taking the employer to court but rather settle the dispute in total privacy through a “neutral” arbitrator. This may seem a little off-topic, but I think it’s important to discuss.
According to professionals, arbitration often benefits the employer because they are allowed to withhold evidence for your use. Arbitrators are often retired judges who need employers as clients. Arbitration is held in private and isn’t a risk to the employer’s public image, so whatever incident that caused the dispute is now water under the bridge and there’s no accountability for improved behavior. In a court setting, the jury would often be more empathetic with the employee. Disputes can include all sorts of scenarios such as discrimination, torts, withholding pay, and even even even sexual harassment and assault! Ohhhh nooooo.
The people I met with seemed nice. What was the likelihood I’d be harassed or assaulted? Even if it happened maybe I would be okay with arbitration. These were all the justifications I made when signing the contract. Thing is, who would ever imagine that they would be a victim of harassment, and worst yet, not have the choice to seek public justice?
Susan Fowler, the famous female engineer who started Uber’s year of hell in 2017, has actively been fighting forced arbitration. Since the end of last year, Microsoft has gotten rid of forced arbitration, and Uber followed suit. There are other “progressive” employers out there that lead in the discussion about diversity & inclusion and yet still employ this practice. Some employers will put that clause right in your offer letter. Others might hide it deep within an employee handbook that you might not see unless you request for it.
To end any bad practice, we disable it. To disable forced arbitration, we should choose to not work for employers who practice it.
If you are unfulfilled at your current job, have stopped growing, are burned out, it’s time to make a move.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
I had some combination of the above feelings for several months, and I refused to continue experiencing them. I ended up in a great place, and I would hate for anybody else to endure negative experiences when they can give themselves choices.
All that being said, I wanted to highlight some amazing companies that I worked with through this process. If you’re looking, consider these!
Instant and transparent installment loans for consumers on mobile. Totally disrupting the finance industry. Awesome recruiter.
Automating the offline world. Incredible candidate experience. They consider one another good friends and care greatly about maintaining an inclusive environment. Fair: employees in the same function & level earn the same compensation and receive raises to meet current market rates. Awesome, empathetic VP of Engineering. I got a call from one of the Co-Founders the night after the interview which speaks volumes about personal touch.
Arguably the leader in the cryptocurrency space. For being such a high-growth tech company, they are thoughtful about maintaining a positive culture and addressing any shortcomings. As soon as I walked into the office, I could immediately feel the buzzing, positive energy. The world knows Coinbase has been and will continue to deal with interesting technical challenges. When the peoples’ vision is aligned and they internalize the positive impact of digital money on the rest of the world, the company becomes an exciting place to work at. Rockstar recruiter, energetic and quirky Head of Engineering, and one thought leader of a CEO.
The company I decided to work for delivers over a billion emails a day to approximately half of the world’s online population.
Happy, Hungry, Honest, Humble. I can think of no other tech company with these kinds of values, and it’s not just a facade — we live it daily. I realize more and more that I made the best choice. We talk about diversity & inclusion everyday without the awkward silence of disapproval from those who don’t fall into the minority category. It is an incredibly collaborative workplace and sustains a culture of gratitude. I feel empowered to speak up and make an impact, and we have a lot of fun in the Redwood City office. The two recruiters I worked with were some of the most patient and Honest I had ever worked with. And, we have an inspiring, personable CEO with a giant heart, whose biggest fear as the company scales is hiring the right people and sustaining our culture.
With that, I conclude my epic. Go forth and conquer, and if you need someone to bounce job searching strategies off of, feel free to leave a comment or ping me!
Learn more about Ly’s current employer, SendGrid, and read more of her stories on her Medium.
This article was originally published on Medium. Featured image by Thomas Tucker via Upsplash.